Alberto Meda’s Functional Beauty

Alberto Meda came to design from engineering, bringing with him a pragmatic mind, an attention to details in materials and production process, in addition to formal concerns. This applied-science background has shaped Meda’s recognizable stamp of elegant simplicity, designs that are at once modern in form and organic in feel. It was this individual sophistication that caught the eye of Rolf Fehlbaum, the legendary chairman of the Swiss manufacturer Vitra, who commissioned the Italian engineer to design a chair some 20 years ago. Thus began a collaboration that continues to this day, resulting in some of the most memorable seating pieces up to and including the MedaPro and the newest design, the MedaPal. While Meda has a strong and abiding relationship with many Italian manufacturers such as Luceplan and Alias, here he talks to writer Eva Prinz about his work with Vitra.

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How long have you worked with Vitra?
The collaboration began in 1984. Our first chair, the Meda Chair, was presented in 1986. Then came the “number two,” which was the same structure but in plastic. The problem [with the first chair] was how to reduce the cost, because the aluminum is very nice but also very expensive.

How did you do it?
Just changing the material is not enough. The main difference between the new chair and the old one is the kinetics, how it moves. The new generation is, in a way, a more conventional chair. You separate the mechanism from the structure—that means what enables motion isn’t part of what holds the chair together. There is a seat platform, and that platform fits different seats and houses the moveable parts. You can move the seat backward and forward, so when you press your back against it you have a synchronized movement that can support people of different weights and heights. So with this system you have an industrial-scale economy because the parts are the same. You can use this platform for different products. Other designers could also use this mechanism.

Could you discuss the recycle-ability of the chair?
What makes a chair recyclable is its parts’ reusability. The cushions are easy to replace. You can disassemble the cushion and you can disassemble the back of the chair.

Did you work with a design team?
I work alone, but I have good relations with Vitra. We understand each other, so the relations are good and it has only increased in quality. The drawings are important, but they’re not enough. You need a strong prototype.

Is that where Vitra comes in?
I go once a month to Vitra in Basel, which is quite a strong commitment. It is very important to make tests. They develop physically what we have decided together, and you get [design] hints from the physicality. In a certain sense, this prototype phase is very important.

How is it working with Vitra?
My Vitra team is fantastico. There are ten people working for me. So when I arrive, I stay one day. It’s a very, very busy day because I spend time with fabric people, model makers, structure people, and some CAD people. Then, of course, we have different projects in different stages, and only one might be in a prototype stage. Designing is a complex activity. You do something and then decide you shouldn’t. You go in this direction and you go in that direction. Sometimes you swerve.

What influences your chair design ideas?
I tried to make a design that gradually takes shape. It is not a readymade thing. It’s a way, I think, to make an original product, because the approach is in the construction. The shape comes out of the creation in an unpredictable way.

How does that work in a production process?
I send [the Vitra studio] my drawings. Design is how to express your idea through the materials, through the shape of the material; engineering is about new materials and new technologies. But the challenge is to use technology to solve a problem, not to express itself in its own shape. It’s a contradiction—because as much as technology is complex, you get better results by making simple things. To me it is very important to be physically surrounded by simple things that are calm and not visually evasive, because it is our biological need to need simple things.

Why do you think that is?
We need simplicity because it is opposite of our nature. We as human beings are very complicated. I think that technology must find a way to integrate functions so the same piece of construction should be carrying out many different functions. It’s about the relationship between these different parts. Using this integration of functions, what I would like or intend to create is an image that is almost as organic as we are. We are made up of different components, but the important thing is that everything relates to everything else.

Is that the challenge of design, finding this complex simplicity?
Every time it is a challenge. With the first chair, when I first started I was sure it was impossible to find a solution; because it was the first time I dealt with a mechanism inside the chair—a chair that moves with your body. I made another chair, but suddenly we discovered this solution that gives movement and simplicity. It was like a magnificent accident.

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